The Films of 2016: 13TH

The debut of Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13TH on Netflix yesterday coincided with the theatrical release of Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s dramatization of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.  (The title of Parker’s film is meant as a rejoinder to D.W. Griffith’s film of the same name, footage of which also features heavily in 13TH.)  Parker and Duvernay’s films are landing in the middle of a political season so heated that it feels like it’s about to boil over; they’re also kicking off an awards season in which Hollywood will attempt to redress the grievances of #OscarsSoWhite with such films as Birth, Loving, Moonlight, and Fences.  That is to say that the representation of black lives within the culture industry has come to feel urgent and necessary—two words that could also be used to describe Duvernay’s film, a rigorous tracing of the links between racism and incarceration in America since the abolition of slavery.  One of the arguments of the film is that the dehumanization of black Americans under chattel slavery lives on in the form of mass incarceration; the “13th” of the film’s title refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”  Emphasis Duvernay’s.  13TH posits that over the last century politicians on both the right and the left have worked to create a prison industrial complex that criminalizes black bodies and profits from their imprisonment. 

It’s a vast and toxic network of forces that Duvernay is tracing here, as the film touches on everything from the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs and Emmett Till to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the rise of Trump.  (The film is so up-to-the-minute you’d think it was still being edited earlier this week.)  At 100 minutes, it’s tightly packed with statistics, archival footage, song lyrics, movie clips, and interviews with everyone from Angela Davis to Newt Gingrich.  Maybe too tightly packed: you can just about feel Duvernay panting to squeeze everything in.  Even in the interview footage, Duvernay’s camera can’t sit still, often prowling around its subjects as if walking off nervous energy.  The breathless quality of 13TH is a consequence of its attempt to synthesize some 150 years of American history into a film that runs a little over one hour and a half.  It’s no simple feat even for a filmmaker of her talent, and as slick as the final product may be one wonders whether we would have an easier time chewing it over if she had chosen to bite off less. 

But 13TH cannot help but feel like required viewing right now, much in the same way that Ta Nahisi-Coates’ Between the World and Me felt like necessary reading when it came out last summer.  13TH also makes a punchier, more strident companion piece with Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made In America, at the heels at which it has already begun to nip as the two head into the Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature.  My personal preference is for O.J., which takes an opposite approach from 13TH by staking out a relatively small subject and proceeding to work it over in exhaustive detail over the course of more than six hours.  O.J. achieves a vastness by swelling so gradually that half the time you’re not even aware of how and when Edelman’s focus is shifting, whereas 13TH often feels like nothing but shifts.  But both feel so important that it seems pointless to dismiss one at the expense of the other.  Together they provide more insight into the history of black life in the U.S. than just about anything we’ve seen on screen in the last twenty years, and that’s something to champion.

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